Dakota Datebook

Bismarck’s Trouble Phone

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Picking up the phone in the early 1900s and ordering the operator to “get me the police!” only worked when the police were able to answer the call. On this date in 1909, the Bismarck Police Department installed their first “trouble phone,” a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week emergency phone number, after it became clear the old system wasn’t working for the city.

This solution came well after the installation of the first telephones in Bismarck in 1881. Having a telephone offered the promise of being able to reach anyone at any time, including the police department, but despite Bismarck having the most modern telephone system in the Dakotas by the early 1900s, police officers were often out walking their beat, not waiting at the station for a call to come in. Sometimes it fell on the telephone operator, or someone who worked at night, like the railroad telegraph operator, to track down an officer.

Around 1907, the Bismarck city council arranged that someone in need of help could call the Hughes Electric power plant and ask them to summon the police. A worker would take the message and then blow the plant’s steam whistle. A police officer would then contact the plant, get the message, and take care of the problem.

Because it was so easy to make a telephone call, pranks and non-emergencies made the whistle system more of a problem than a solution. Up to forty police calls were answered by Hughes Electric each day, and they resented stopping work to answer calls about stray cows and barking dogs. In the fall of 1907, Hughes Electric announced that they would only lend the police their whistle if the city of Bismarck paid for an employee to handle the calls.

The city understood that using Hughes Electric as their emergency alert system wouldn’t last, so in 1909 new changes were made to solve the police department’s communication problems. The department moved from city hall to the fire station in order to better manage emergencies. A police officer would be at the station twenty-four hours a day, ready to answer phone calls on the new “trouble phone.” Rather than using a siren to alert the beat cops, a series of “police lights” were installed around the city that would be turned on by the dispatcher if an officer was needed. This system lasted thirty years, until the installation of the first two-way radios in 1940 further modernized how the Bismarck police handled emergency communication.

Dakota Datebook written by Derek Dahlsad


Mandan Historical Society, “C E V (Charles) Draper.” Retrieved from http://www.mandanhistory.org/biographiesad/cevcharlesdraper.html

“Trouble Phone is Now Installed.” 11-16-1909. Bismarck Daily Tribune.

“Police Calls.” 8-16-1907. Bismarck Daily Tribune

“That Police Whistle.” 8-17-1907. Bismarck Daily Tribune.

“Martineson Asks Help of Public.” 12-3-1930. The Bismarck Tribune.

“Local Police Use Two-Way Radio Set.” 8-3-1940. The Bismarck Tribune

“Hose House to be Police Station.” 11/9/1909. Bismarck Daily Tribune

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

« Go Back

Award-winning radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.

Donate Now

Breaking News

Follow Us On Social Media